An OUI trial in Massachusetts is governed by rules and laws that allow and prohibit certain statements, reports, and objects from admission into evidence. Once a statement or item is admitted into evidence, it may be considered by the judge or jury for the purposes of reaching a verdict. In Com. v. Schutte, the MA Court of Appeals considered the admissibility of a doctor’s report which corroborated the defendant’s own testimony that he was suffering from an impairment that caused him to fail his sobriety tests.
The defendant in this case was pulled over after the officer observed him driving erratically on the road. The officer testified that he had smelt alcohol, and asked the defendant whether he had been drinking. The defendant replied that he a couple of bears. The officer then decided to conduct field sobriety tests.
The officer administered the alphabet test, and then asked the defendant to perform the one-legged stand and the walk-and-pivot test. The defendant passed the alphabet test, but before taking the remaining two tests, informed the officer that he had thirteen ear operations which effect his equilibrium. Despite this admission, the officer allowed the defendant to take the remaining two tests – and the defendant lost his balance in both.
At trial, the defendant testified that he suffered from an impairment that effected his balance and equilibrium, and offered medical records from his hospital and treating physicians that documented his ear surgeries. The defendant then sought to offer a report by his physician stating that the defendant had degenerated balance which is associated with his ear surgeries. The prosecutor, however, challenged admission of that evidence and the trial judge prohibited it from admission. The prosecutor subsequently relied on the fact that the defendant failed the walk and one-legged stand tests to persuade the jury to convict the defendant. The defendant appealed.
The Appeals Court disagreed with the trial judge’s treatment of this report, and reversed the conviction on the grounds that the medical reports were admissible under a state statute (G.L. 233 § 79G). According to the Appeals Court, a written report of an examining physician that speaks to a disability or incapacity that proximately results form a condition that the physician observed is admissible. The court found that the report was drafted by a physician who treated the defendant, and that it stated the cause of the defendant’s imbalance. Furthermore, the defense attorney took the proper steps to inform the court and the prosecutor ahead of time of his intent to introduce this evidence. Under these circumstances, the evidence is admissible, even if the report was written in preparation for trial.
Since the prosecutor relied substantially on the lack of evidence that speaks directly to the defendant’s imbalance in order to convict, the Appeals Court also ruled that the conviction should be set aside. The jury likely relied on the officer’s testimony that the defendant did not pass his sobriety tests when it returned a guilty verdict. But the officer’s conclusion was highly misleading, given the fact that the defendant would have failed the tests regardless of whether he was intoxicated (because of his balance impairment). And since the trial judge prohibited the doctor’s report which evidenced the defendant’s impairment, the defendant was deprived a critical opportunity to bolster his defense theory that his loss of balance was not a result of intoxication but rather a medical impairment.
All trials are heavily regulated by rules and statutes, which govern the types of questions and arguments raised in court, as well as the kind of evidence offered by either party. Many of these rules are highly technical, and can mean the difference between a guilty and innocent verdict. This case is an excellent example of the need for diligent and experienced legal representation in any criminal case, since failure to adhere and properly apply these rules may result not only in a conviction but also sanctions against the negligent attorney.